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The USS Indianapolis and Writing About History for Kids

Writers are asked all the time ‘what inspired you to write this book?’ Into the Killing Seas, my newest novel, is told through the eyes of a young boy who, along with his brother, stows away about the USS Indianapolis. Almost two days out of port, the ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine.

Two torpedoes tore the ship nearly in half. It sank so quickly only 900 of the 1200 man crew were able to abandon ship. Most of them were burned and wounded. They floated in the ocean nearly five days before they were spotted and rescued. They survived exposure, dehydration, starvation, and relentless heat and rolling seas. And they had the great misfortune to sink in some of the most heavily shark infested waters on earth.

Scientists have called it the worst human-shark encounter in history. Of the 900 men who made it off the ship, only 317 were pulled from the water. It was the worse disaster at seas in US Naval history. It was, by any definition, a horrific event.

What inspired me to write Into the Killing Seas? First, like any writer, my primary goal is to tell the best story I possibly can. And in the case of the Indianapolis disaster, to introduce young readers to an important historic event through historical fiction.

There is a lot of action and tragedy in Into the Killing Seas. Booklist called it “grim and vivid.” And it is very difficult to ‘sanitize’ a shark attack. Which brings me to the inspiration question. Why write about such a horrible event, a war, death and destruction? Especially in a book for children?

It’s my own opinion, but I believe young readers deserve honesty and truth, just as much as adult readers. Writing a book like Into the Killing Seas gives readers a glimpse of a true event that was beyond horrible. And the horribleness is the point. My goal in writing historical fiction for young readers is to try and give them an understanding that war and the things that go with are awful. It is not a movie or a video game. It is at times both the best and worst of humanity. There is no reset button. Sometimes men and women fight and die. And in my opinion, I think it’s important that young readers learn that reality.

And that’s my question. Does giving kids a glimpse of the reality of war, or the truth of history provide them with a valuable lesson? We have a tendency these days to want to protect our children from the harshness of life. But life is not always kind. Does opening their eyes to events like the Crusades or World War II make them better prepared to understand the world as they become adults? I’d love to know what you think about using historical fiction to introduce young readers to history. 

4 Comments

  1. I’m sorry, this isn’t even close to putting you on the banned book list. I teach 4th-6th graders at a small, Catholic school in a VERY conservative area of the county. Students from all three of those classes have read Into the Killing Seas and loved it.

    This is about as nonviolent as it can be and still tell the story. Life and history is violent. We could never teach a history class, allow a child to watch television nor play a video game if that were the case.

    No this probably isn’t the best book for 1st graders, but for 4th grade and up, as this book is intended is perfectly fine.

    My students put the word streak in the context of a kill streak, as in a video game, over streaking, or a streak of paint or mud.

    I’m sorry, but this isn’t going to make the banned book list any time soon.

  2. My 12 year old son needed a book to read for a school assignment, so I picked up Into The Killing Seas form our library. I read it also and found it to be a superb piece of historical fiction. Well done. I never suspected the story would end as it did. Very touching.

  3. I have done my master in History, and look to on Public Research for my children .Imperialism,
    Progressivism, Great War these are some topic i would like to know more

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